Battling back to cycle across U.S.

Meurig James, seriously injured when struck by a car two years ago, plans to compete in the Race Across America in June.
Meurig James, seriously injured when struck by a car two years ago, plans to compete in the Race Across America in June. (BOB WELLMON)
Posted: April 09, 2013

In June, Meurig James, an avid cyclist, plans to ride his bike across the United States in 10 days or less. The event is called Race Across America, and it's arguably the toughest two-wheel endurance contest on the planet.

James, 35, is an accomplished cyclist, but what makes his participation so extraordinary is that he has spent the last two years battling back from a collision with a speeding car that nearly killed him, and certainly seemed to spell the end of his days as a competitive cyclist.

Meurig (pronounced MY-rig) James grew up in a small village in Wales and began cycling when he was 9. By the time he was 12, he was racing. In his mid-teens, he was competing for the Welsh national team, and within a few years he was winning national titles.

He attended the University of Birmingham in the Midlands of England, where he majored in materials engineering. Concentrating on his studies, he cut back on cycling. After graduating, he began cycling again seriously, competing in road races and time trials and attaining elite Category 1 status.

His work as a consultant took him to the United States, first to Michigan and later to Philadelphia, where he met a young woman from Upstate New York who was finishing her family practice residency at the University of Pennsylvania. In October 2009, James decided to make Philadelphia his home, and he and his physician girlfriend, Kristie, eventually married.

Meanwhile, James, who lives in Center City, continued to cycle.

His job entails plenty of travel, and James always takes along a folding bike that fits into a suitcase so he can keep training. Here in Philadelphia, he joined the Quaker City Wheelmen, which is affiliated with Breakaway Bikes.

"It has a great community feel," James says of the group.

On March 18, 2011, James and cycling pal Nick Rogers were engaged in some prerace training on the roads around Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. They were concluding the workout when James made a left turn. The posted limit is 25 m.p.h., but a car was heading toward him at what seemed twice that speed.

"Halfway through the turn, I had a moment when I realized I'm dead," James recalls. The car made no attempt to slow down and struck James on his right side, then accelerated and drove away. His bike was crushed under the vehicle, while James was thrown 20 feet in the air "like a rag doll." Luckily he landed on a patch of grass bordering the road, and amazingly he didn't hit his head. In fact, there wasn't a nick on his helmet. Still, the damage was significant - a broken clavicle, fractured ribs, two fractured vertebrae, shattered kneecaps and left ankle, pulmonary contusions, and abdominal bleeding.

James blacked out from the intense pain, and his friend Rogers thought he was dead. An ambulance took him to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where a "washout" was performed on some of his worst wounds. His right knee was so torn up that the shredded tendons and ligaments were visible. His left ankle was also ripped open. "It was a million to one that I survived," James recalls.

During two days in intensive care, the swelling in his lungs increased to such an extent that only a small portion of one lung, about the size of a golf ball, was functioning and providing oxygen.

James remained in the hospital for two weeks. Toward the end, he was already pushing himself by taking steps with a walker. Each time, he would go a little farther, sometimes getting stranded when his strength gave out. "It became my mission to get well and healthy as quickly as possible," James says.

By mid-April, he was using a stationary training bike, with one leg in a brace, the other in a cast.

"It was one of the most painful bike rides I ever made. I lasted 5 to 10 minutes." But James kept pushing himself. By mid-May, he was back to work. By the end of May, he was cycling to outpatient physical therapy sessions.

Soon, James was back riding with his clubmates, taking part in Saturday-morning time trials on Martin Luther King Drive. "I'm not as strong and fast as I was, and I might never be again, but I feel lucky to be able to do what I can."

Fewer than half those who start the Race Across America finish. Little wonder. It means cycling more than 300 miles a day, with only a few hours of sleep. The race is 3,000 miles long, beginning in Oceanside, Calif., and finishing in Annapolis, Md. The record is eight days and change.

James, who has been training in earnest since May, is confident. "I'm getting stronger, going farther, and adapting to big rides," he says.

"Meurig has more determination then any athlete I have ever worked with," says his coach Joe Wentzel, owner of Breakaway Bikes. "Whatever I ask of him gets done. If it means riding on an indoor bike for eight hours in the dark, he does it, knowing full well it will be nothing compared to the pain and solitude he will experience during the Race Across America."

While the race marks "the culmination of my recovery," James is also trying to raise awareness and money for two groups he cares for: the Bikes Belong Foundation, which encourages mutual respect between motorists and cyclists, and the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia.

"I'm trying to do what I can to make a difference," James says. "Before, cycling was about wanting to win and crush the opposition. It's not about that now. I take stock as much as possible of what I have to be thankful for. The accident was a reminder to be more patient and appreciative.

"Life is beautiful but very fragile and can be very short."


Readers can follow Meurig James' progress at bikesbelongacrossamerica.org.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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